If you have $10 million or so lying around, you can buy your way into a Democratic debate. That, at least, was one lesson from Tom Steyer’s announcement Tuesday that he had—after spending $7 million on television commercials and $3.5 million on online advertisements (including $2.6 million on Facebook ads alone)—likely purchased a lectern at the third primary debate, coming next month.
Steyer has played the part of a billionaire populist, arguing that he was only throwing his gilded hat in the ring because he felt that “the overriding issue of today,” the influence of corporate money on American politics, was not being adequately advanced by the other candidates. This, given the popularity of Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders, beggars belief. But Steyer has nevertheless attempted to argue that he, as both a politician and a billionaire who has spent millions on political issues, is trying to guide a movement that’s about taking power away from corporations and handing it back to the people. “Really what we’re doing is trying to make democracy work by pushing power down to the people,” Steyer said in his announcement video, released in early July. “We have a society that’s very unequal and it’s really important for people to understand that this society is connected.”
“If this is a banana republic with a few very, very rich people and everybody else living in misery, that’s a failure,” Steyer warned.
With his high spending—chump change, though it may be, to someone worth well north of a billion bucks—Steyer became, as New York’s Eric Levitz wrote on Tuesday, “the proud owner of a small-dollar-funded ‘grassroots’ campaign.” The hedge-fund-manager-turned-activist can now say, almost with a straight face, that he has momentum—albeit the kind that doesn’t really show in the polls. (Steyer is hovering around the margin of error in most 2020 opinion polls, though he only needs to crack 2 percent in one more poll to ensure a place on stage next month.)
Still, Steyer’s likely slot in the September debate is the first significant achievement of his ongoing presidential vanity project. Although he has committed tens of millions to issues and elections—spending big on fighting climate change and on candidates during the 2018 midterms, along with those ubiquitous and arguably self-important impeachment ads—his decision to announce a presidential campaign earlier this summer suggests an abandonment of long-term strategic thinking. “We are so caught up in the glamour of the presidential race,” American Constitution Society President Caroline Fredrickson told The New Republic last month, “that we are losing focus on what else is going on.” Steyer’s presidential campaign (like his impeachment spots) is a giant waste of money that could be spent much more effectively on infrastructure, voter registration, and electing Democrats at the local and state level.
If Steyer were really serious about lasting change, he should reconsider many of his recent investments—and look to Georgia Democrat Stacey Abrams, whose efforts over the past several months serve both her long-term interests and those of her party.
Abrams, of course, is notably not running for president—one of, it seems, only a handful of prominent members of her party to make that decision. She confirmed that she would not be mounting a challenge on Tuesday, though she did say she would be “honored to be considered” as a running mate for the eventual nominee. Asked by The New York Times how she came to her decision, she said, “I’ve been thinking about this for the last few weeks, and I’ve just come to the decision that my best value add, the strongest contribution I can give to this primary, would be to make sure our nominee is coming into an environment where there’s strong voter protections in place.”
After narrowly losing a high-profile run for governor in Georgia last year, Abrams has worked to combat the kinds of voter suppression efforts that arguably cost her a victory—and will likely harm Democrats at all levels in 2020. Instead of spending her time raising money for a presidential campaign that could end in failure—as, for instance, Steyer’s likely will—Abrams is asking donors to help her identify and combat efforts to suppress the vote. Launching Fair Fight 2020, an effort that will focus on 20 battleground states, Abrams said, “I’m going to use my energy and my very loud voice to raise the money we need to train people in states to make sure [President Donald] Trump … take[s] a hike.”
To make sure every ballot gets counted,” Abrams added, “we are going to fight to make sure every voice is heard, every eligible American who should have the vote will be able to.”
It’s exactly the kind of effort more Democrats should be making. Seduced, as always, by the Oval Office, many Democrats—inside and outside the national party apparatus—are ignoring some of the most important aspects of winning and wielding power. Combatting voter suppression is a crucial part of that endeavor, but there’s room for much more. Democrats have made gains at the local and state level after historic losses during the Obama years, but spending on candidates—and infrastructure—is crucial at this juncture. Voters need to be registered and, for that matter, organized. Steyer’s money would be better spent bankrolling candidates aligned with his political vision, and educating voters on issues like corporate power and climate change.
There is a growing sense that some candidates are getting the memo. John Hickenlooper may abandon his clumsy presidential campaign to run for Colorado’s Senate seat—an election he will likely win. Beto O’Rourke and Steve Bullock may soon follow his lead, though they’ll likely have tougher fights in Texas and Montana, respectively. (Many Georgia Democrats hoped Abrams would run for one of the state’s Senate seats next year, something she ruled out in April.) Steyer, though, should look to Abrams when thinking about his future. She is building infrastructure in key states—and will undoubtedly be a leading contender for the vice presidential nomination. Even if she doesn’t get picked, she’ll be well positioned in 2028 (or maybe—gulp—2024), having built alliances in the most important electoral states, while also improving the Democratic Party’s chances of holding on to power and affecting real change.
That’s hard work that few people want to do, but it’s money and time well spent—and certainly a better value than whatever it is the billionaire is doing.